The 2021 Sundance Film Festival may have the event’s biggest audience ever, organizers say

Online format opens films to more people, but Sundance’s director “can’t wait” to be back in Park City.

(Screengrab image) Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson, top left, and Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam, top right, talk to reporters in a Zoom news conference Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, to kick off the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Gina Duncan, bottom, producing director at the institute, served as moderator.

With drums from the Northern Ute Tribe and the singing of a spiritual, and with a poetic greeting from Robert Redford and chatroom shoutouts, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday evening in homes around the world.

Festival organizers moved the festival online this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, attempting to channel the energy of Park City’s annual gathering onto a digital platform.

Keri Putnam, the executive director of the Sundance Institute, said during a 30-minute opening presentation that Sundance had three options: “We could cancel or move the festival. We could play it safe and simply make our slate of films available online. Or we could take a risk and imagine a way to re-create the energy of the full festival experience digitally. Well, we chose the riskier route following the lead of our artists and audiences whose adventurous spirits inspire us.”

Redford — the actor and filmmaker, and Sundance Institute’s founder — greeted festival attendees in a recorded message dedicated to artists.

“Every artist holds a mirror to their piece of the universe, to make the hidden visible, the unknown familiar,” Redford said. “Even though we have been separated, we are still bound together. We dream under the same sky, filled with stardust.”

Some of that stardust formed the Utah deserts and mountains, Redford said, “where, years ago, early artists left their mark. They stretched out their hands and pressed them firm against the cool rock. Each handprint is unique, a poem unto itself. And each is proof of an impulse so utterly human, so universal: To say I am here. You are here. We are here. And we have a story to tell.”

The opening presentation began with a performance by Red Spirit, a group of drummers and singers from the Northern Ute Tribe. It ended with folk-blues singer Rhiannon Giddens performing an old spiritual, “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

In between, festival director Tabitha Jackson greeted people online representing the 28 cities nationwide that will have “satellite screen” events during the festival. She also asked people to write “we are here” with their hometown in the platform’s chat function — causing a cascade of locations from across the country and such far-flung places as Russia, China, Scotland and New Zealand.

Earlier in the day, Putnam and Jackson told reporters that the global audience for this year’s festival, watching from laptops and home theaters, is looking to be the event’s largest ever.

“We’ve met and exceeded the goals we set for audience reach,” Putnam said during a teleconference with media outlets ahead of Thursday’s opening night screenings.

Neither Putnam nor Jackson said during the news conference how many people would be attending the festival through its digital platform. A Sundance spokeswoman said the institute would announce attendance figures after the festival ends on Wednesday.

The festival drew an estimated 116,000 attendees in 2020, to Park City and venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance Mountain Resort, according to an economic impact survey conducted by Y2 Analytics. The company reported that 122,000 people attended in 2019, and nearly 125,000 in 2018.

The festival canceled in-person screenings in Utah this year and opted for an online format.

“What the pandemic has done was to kind of explode our present reality from then,” Jackson said during the news conference, which in pre-COVID times was held in Park City’s Egyptian Theatre. “We were left with these pieces. And the festival actually is coming from a place of needing to completely reimagine, and take the pieces that we know are part of our essence, and build them into something different to meet the moment.”

A key piece, Jackson said, is energy. “That’s what a festival is — it’s about energy. How do we preserve the energy around the work, and the artists and the connection and the experiences?” she asked.

The festival kicked off its opening night with two films on its digital platform: Director Sian Heder’s drama “CODA,” about a teen girl with deaf parents; and Nanfu Wang’s documentary “In the Same Breath,” which chronicles the Chinese government’s efforts to hide the truth about the COVID-19 pandemic’s beginnings in Wuhan.

Heder, in the Zoom call Q&A after the premiere of “CODA,” said filming in coastal Massachusetts was “the most lovely set to be on. … [The actors] were incredible to work with, and generous with each other.”

Oscar winner Marlee Matlin was the first actor Heder cast in the film, and two other deaf actors — Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant — were cast as Matlin’s husband and son, both fishermen. The British actor Emilia Jones was cast in the lead role, as the hearing daughter of the family, who discovers a talent for singing. (The film’s title is an acronym for “children of deaf adults.”)

“Emilia had so many roles to play,” Heder said. “She had to be an incredible singer, and have to sign, and be on a fishing boat and not be squeamish about gutting a haddock.”

Both Jones and Heder learned American Sign Language to communicate better with the deaf members of the cast. There also were interpreters on set, and many of the crew members picked up some signs.

“I would encourage everyone to use ASL as a set language,” Heder advised filmmakers. “You don’t need [walkie-talkies] anymore.”

Each of the festival’s 73 feature films will have a designated time slot for a premiere screening, then a second screening two days later that can be streamed during a 24-hour period.

That format, Jackson said, ensures “that there’s an anticipation around the films, that a film is going to have its premiere at a particular time and you need to scramble to get a ticket. That is the recognizable Sundance experience.”

Another innovation Jackson touted is the New Frontier platform, which she called “off the charts.” In addition to the virtual reality and augmented reality works that New Frontier has highlighted in past years, the platform will be “a virtual spaceship” that is “the place were we can meet and bump into people, [and have] the serendipitous encounters” that usually happen in Park City’s bars and on the shuttle buses.

The New Frontier platform, accessible through a computer or virtual-reality headset, features interactive VR, AR (augmented reality) and mixed media artworks that people can click or walk through. Topics range from the writings of science fiction author Octavia E. Butler to the romantic yearnings of a 17-year-old Argentine girl who uses a wheelchair.

The “spaceship” — which media outlets got to explore Thursday, ahead of the festival’s opening — contains a series of virtual rooms. They include a “gallery” of installations, a “cinema house” where one can watch Sundance films in a virtual-reality setting with other audience members, and a “film party” where festival attendees can chat or hang out.

Jackson said she will “remain open” to what the festival brings, “and notice the possibilities and opportunities that present themselves, and also notice the things that we tried — because we wanted to try them — but they didn’t work.”

Still, Putnam said, “I can’t wait to be back together in a collective experience. And back in Utah, back in Park City. That, for sure, will be part of our future, as it has been part of our past.”